Allison Janney Chases Her Family Tree From Bermuda To Jamestown in the Latest Episode of Who Do You Think You Are?
Though I never knew much about Allison Janney as a person, I was probably more familiar with her work than either of the first two celebrities on this season’s Who Do You Think You Are? After all, she won an award for I, Tonya, got her big break in West Wing, and has long had a recurring role as a snarky delight in Mom. Despite all that, Allison admits early in the episode that a quote she agreed with is that “Allison, you are going to be successful in spite of yourself”. She was always told that she wasn’t pretty enough, needed to be more edgy, or simply that she was too tall. Despite all this, she’s had a successful career, and now wants to discover more about her past.
Allison was born in Boston, Mass and then her family quickly moved to Dayton, Ohio. Her maternal grandparents were named Big Hall and Sippy. Sippy was her favorite grandmother, rebellious and full of naughty adventures. Every year Sippy and Hal vacationed in Bermuda, only for Sippy to die there at a relatively young age. Thus, Allison decided to work with Ancestry to learn more about the maternal side of her family tree. And suffice to say, she found some really fascinating bits of history.
With the help of Ancestry genealogist Joseph B. Shumway, Allison learns some of the opening tidbits about her story. With his help, they trace her lineage through 8 generations to the 17th century. It turns out, her early family before that arrived from England, and there’s talk of the Great Migration and the Mayflower. But actually getting to that point was far more of an adventure than anybody could have expected.
Great grandpa Stephen Hopkins arrived on Bermuda in 1609, a few years before the Mayflower. First, he had a little detour on a ship called the Sea Venture. He was aiming for Jamestown, but then they wrecked. There he was, separated from his wife and young child. Allison had to know how he got from there to Boston, Mass.
Allison does more legwork and chases this lead to Bermuda herself. There at the National Museum, she talks with historian Michael Jarvis. From him she learns a lot about grandpa Stephen and the crew of the Sea Venture. A hurricane was what steered them off course. Once shipwrecked on Bermuda, they found a paradise uninhabited by humans, and abundant with nature, including fish, birds and edible plants. They managed to thrive this way for a couple months before realizing rescue wasn’t coming, and they would have to get off the island themselves. Which is where things got a bit more complicated.
A document from Sir Thomas Gates, Virginia’s governor designate, clarifies what was at stake. He desperately wanted to complete the voyage and directed the crew as such. Jamestown was only a couple years old at that point, and he wanted the prestige of running a new colony. Unfortunately for him, the crew of the Sea Venture wanted to stay and try their luck in Bermuda. There was a legitimate mutiny fomented in part by Hopkins. He was working as a clarke for a minister at the time, and so most of the men had a lot of respect and love for him. He tried to convince everyone to ignore Gates’ wishes. The result was a drastic move by Gates, who had him shackled and sentenced to death.
Luckily, the men so loved Hopkins that they succeeded in pleading for his life. But afterwards, there was no talk of staying on their island paradise. They stripped the Sea Venture to build two smaller vessels, named Deliverance and Patience. So equipped, they left Bermuda after 10 months in 1610 for Jamestown, and this also lead to the eventual colonization of Bermuda later on. Though it was mere coincidence that Allison’s grandma Sippy died on the island her ancestor was shipwrecked, this helped to stir her imagination.
Next Allison heads to Jamestown, where she meets with James Horn, a man well versed in the history of the area. Not only was it the first permanent English settlement in America, but it’s one with a tragic history. While part of the fleet Hopkins was on arrived in 1609, by that point they had depleted provisions and wounded men. There were up to 500 men living in the fort at Jamestown. And according to an account from George Percy, the state of the colony quickly went from bad to worse.
While there was a massive contingent of Indians of immense power on Jamestown, the English managed to trade with them for a while. It was going well enough until the Indians realized this wasn’t a temporary settlement. Suddenly the colony of Englishmen were trapped by their own walls and things escalated. The 500 or so men was whittled down to 60, and those that remained were skeletal from starvation. There was even evidence of cannibalism. This was the sight that greeted Hopkins after his island detour. And while at first he tried to abandon the horrific colony, he was brought back by an English longboat packed with provisions. So with the day saved, Allison was curious why Stephen would leave Jamestown.
Some digital correspondence from James Horn explains exactly why Stephen left the colony. It was because in 1613, his wife died in England, leaving their daughter Constance without parents. Furthermore, documentation shows that Stephen remarried afterwards to a woman named Elizabeth Fisher.
In Plymouth, Allison meets Dr. Donna Curtin. A weathered transcript about the Plymouth families shows Stephen lived there with Elizabeth. A manifest from the Mayflower shows they had several children, two with his first wife and a couple more with his second. Despite all the havoc and chaos of his life, Stephen had a truly unique journey. He had a foothold in the establishment of 3 English plantations. Like many Mayflower pilgrims, he was tempted by the promise of land as well as religious freedoms.
Ironically, after his tumultuous journey on the Sea Venture, the Mayflower almost crashed as well. They wound up docking at a different region than expected, and refused to get off the boat until they had written a Mayflower Compact. This was like a proto Constitution, and an early expression of representative government. Hopkins served as an elected official and lived a life of surprising prosperity and perhaps a bit of providence. In him, Allison saw an echo of her own resilience, and had newfound appreciation for her ancestry.